My winter in Invercargill

Back in the 1990’s I was asked to ‘help out’ at an educational facility in the balmy southern city of Invercargill. Just a few months, over winter, to be a relief teacher for someone who was ‘sick’. I obliged.

When I fronted up, I discovered that my predecessor was on sick leave because of a nervous breakdown from teaching the classes I was taking over. Strange how that wee fact was left out. As the cool April weather closed in, the days shortened and the southerlies blew in from Antarctica, I began one of the most memorable attacks of frostbite I have ever had.

My classes were robust and energetic – students who could see fresh meat in their new teacher. I rose to their challenge and, slowly but surely, won them over. In fact, I could safely walk through the Dee Street Mall at midnight if I had chosen to do so. I did not however, test this theory. It was too bloody cold to venture out unless I had to. But I suspect that I could have.

I spent my weekend afternoons at the Winter garden in Queen Street Park where I could read a book in relative warmth. After all, where else could one go in wintry Southland where bougainvillaea can grow and bananas can thrive?

One day, I was asked to join a group of students who were attending a Rugby match at the Rugby Park Stadium. I think it was between the locals and some imposters from Christchurch, but I could be wrong, for reasons which will soon become apparent.  Our meet up point was at the home of one of my fellow workers. I arrived rugged up, carrying a thermos flask full of soup, a bottle of water and a blanket and pillow. I was greeted with looks of tolerant disdain.

“Where’s your sleeping bag?” I was asked. I explained that I didn’t have one with me. “What’s in your thermos?” I told them. As heads shook, I was suddenly given an “Invercargill” makeover and my thermos flask magically filled with boiling water, whisky and lemon juice; my bottle of water transformed in to a Speights and my blanket and pillow augmented with a sleeping bag. I was, apparently, ready.

I do not know who won the game, scored the tries, kicked the goals or drove me home. All I remember of that day was that I had a very good time. Or so I am told.

By July I was frozen. Solid. You could have put me in a microwave on slow defrost and I would have had to be set to 43 days, 6 hours and 2 minutes. My feet never really belonged to me back then – they were little ice cubes at the base of my legs whose sole purpose was to clunk around and keep me upright whilst I sought refuge at work and endured the misery of my cold home, replete with its damp and forlorn backdrop of a hoar frost that lasted 9 days … and nights.

When I left after my predecessor had recovered I was filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand I was heading north and back to warmer temperatures. But, on the other, I was leaving a people who had welcomed me, embraced me and made my life warmer through their generosity of spirit – particularly of the Ballantine’s variety.

My winter in the Capital of the Deep South taught me that, if Global Warming exists, it should first be launched in winter in Invercargill.  I can think of no better place. With a bottle of Speights, a thermos flask and a good sleeping bag or two. Or maybe three.

God Bless you Invercargill.